October 18, 2018

LACMA exhibit turns spotlight on theatrical side of Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall working on the New York Metropolitan Opera’s “The Triumph of Music” (1966). Art © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, Photo © 2017 Isiz-Manuel Bidermanas

Marc Chagall is best known for his fantastical paintings of folkloric shtetl scenes, circus performers, flying goats and, yes, a fiddler on a roof. His use of light and color and his romantic portrayals of Eastern European Jewish life have made him a beloved artist.

Lesser known among Chagall’s work are the richly detailed costumes and backdrops he created for ballet, theater and opera companies. Those pieces finally get their turn in the limelight in “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage,” on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) beginning July 31.

“Our desire from the beginning was not just to do another large-scale Chagall exhibition but rather to focus on a lesser-known aspect of his production,” said Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA.

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” concentrates on four theatrical productions created over a quarter-century: the ballets “Aleko,” “The Firebird” and “Daphnis and Chloe,” and the opera “The Magic Flute.” All were created during and after World War II while the artist was in exile in New York.

Featured in the show are 145 objects, including 41 brightly painted costumes as well as preparatory sketches and rare 1942 film footage of the original performance of “Aleko.”

Chagall was at the forefront of artists collaborating with the ballet, theater and opera by creating fantastical and visually stunning backdrops and costumes. His work with theatrical companies and opera houses in Russia, Mexico, New York and Paris included painting sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes traveling dance company as early as 1911.

Chagall’s costumes for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris’ “Daphnis and Chloe” (1959)
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” was organized with the help of museums in Montreal, Paris and Roubaix in northern France, and with the support of the Chagall estate.

Chagall worked in many formats, including stained glass, ceramics, book illustrations and tapestries. But one common theme was the appearance of musicians. His granddaughter Bella Meyer told the Journal that music always was an important part of her grandfather’s creative process.

“He always had records or a radio in his art studio, and very often worked while listening to music,” she said. “Most of the time, it was Mozart. And he would talk about music. He loved music.”

Meyer recalled her earliest memories of her grandfather.

“We’d go with my mother to his studio, and that’s where he would be,” she said. “After his happy and gleeful welcome, he would sit back and paint. I have many memories watching him paint.”

Barron organized the show with help from the museum’s costume and textile curators, and she leaned on their expertise to display the work.

“It’s one thing to hang a painting, put up a sculpture, do a drawing. But how you present costumes is a very complicated series of decisions that don’t happen at the last minute,” she said.

Barron previously has tapped Los Angeles luminaries like Frank Gehry and John Baldessari to install exhibitions. For this show, she turned to local opera designer Yuval Sharon and projection designer Jason H. Thompson. Sharon is the founder and artistic director of the experimental opera company The Industry and has grabbed headlines for his immersive productions staged in moving cars and at Union Station. But this was Sharon’s first time designing a museum exhibition. Barron wanted to emphasize the theatricality of Chagall’s costumes in a way that looked different than LACMA’s previous costume exhibitions, like “Reigning Men” and “Fashioning Fashion.”

“Yuval came up with this idea, which of course makes so much sense, to actually put them on stages. Normally, costumes are on platforms,” she said. “These are actually real stages with footlights and curtains and sound that comes out of the footlights and floorboards, instead of a painted deck like we usually do in museum exhibitions. So you walk in and there’s no question that you’re in a theatrical space.”

The exhibition is organized chronologically, with each of the four shows given its own area. Each section includes musical accompaniment. Also included are many of Chagall’s iconic paintings of musicians and theatrical scenes, as well as a series of video interviews featuring contemporary artists, costume designers and opera professionals.

Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russia (present-day Belarus), in 1887. He developed an interest in theater at a young age, creating set designs for the Ballets Russes and murals and set pieces for the Moscow State Jewish Theatre.

He and his family, who were Jewish, fled Nazi-occupied France and immigrated to New York in 1941. The following year, the Ballet Theatre of New York (now American Ballet Theatre) commissioned him to design the scenery and costumes for “Aleko,” a new ballet based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies” and set to Tchaikovsky’s “Trio in A Minor.”

Visitors may notice a Mexican style in the hand-painted costumes and preparatory studies. That’s because “Aleko” was supposed to debut in New York but union rules didn’t allow Chagall to paint the backdrops himself, so he and the Ballet Theatre completed work on the production in Mexico. It premiered in Mexico City, went to New York and was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1943.

“Aleko” led to Chagall’s second commission, in 1945, from the Ballet Theatre, of Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet “The Firebird,” which had premiered in Paris in 1910 at the Ballets Russes. In grief over the recent death of his beloved wife, Bella, Chagall and his daughter, Ida, threw themselves into the project, designing more than 80 costumes for “The Firebird.” The depictions of animals and monsters were beautiful and strange. It debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to great critical acclaim.

The eight costumes from “The Firebird” in the exhibition only surfaced thanks to some serious sleuthing by Barron.

In recent Chagall retrospectives, “The Firebird” was represented by only a single costume. The others could not be found. Barron and fellow LACMA curator Kay Spilker, with the help of Bella Meyer, went to the storage archives of the New York City Ballet last summer and located and negotiated the loan of “The Firebird” costumes.

“The Firebird” has stayed in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire with newer costumes. LACMA is showing the originals.

In 1956, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris commissioned Chagall to design new sets and costumes for Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis and Chloe.” Based on a story by a Greek poet, the blue and earthy oranges and browns of the costumes and sets were inspired by Chagall’s own visits to Greece.

Chagall’s only opera production was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its inaugural season at Lincoln Center in New York in 1967. It was a complex project, with 14 sets and dozens of costumes that took him three years to make.

Chagall’s imaginative work for the stage, along with his many commissioned murals and other decorative projects, helped make him an international celebrity. But to Bella Meyer, he always was just her grandfather.

“I had no idea that he was famous. I was probably a bit naive. There could have been many hints. My mother would take us to every big opening. She would always make sure we would have a nice dress on,” Meyer said. “Everyone would call him “maître,” master. That seemed to me normal, not that it happened to any of us, but I had no understanding that he was known outside of our immediate world. I adored him as a very special, dreamlike, fantastical person. That’s how I always saw him.

“I was a teenager when it dawned on me that he might actually be famous. But he was my grandpa. He was the most humble of people.”

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” will be on display from July 31 through Jan. 7 at LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.  

Outsized ceramics — and energy to match

Anna Silver, whose works are part of an exhibition at Scripps College, has sold pieces to upscale restaurants.

Anna Silver’s two-story home in Westwood Village is filled with teapots of all shapes and sizes. But you would never use them to serve tea.

One is white and gold, the size of a volleyball that’s covered with little round balls; another is massive and bright blue with an oversized handle.

Her former gallerist, Garth Clark, once referred to her comically large “Alice in Wonderland” teapots. A 1989 New York Times reviewer found that her teapots are “rendered hilarious by the conventionality of their shape being stretched to a giant size.”

A series of her oversized painted plates are now on display at the Scripps College Ceramic Annual, billed as the longest continuous exhibition of contemporary ceramics in the United States. She previously had work in the show in 1985.

Her fascination with the teapot dates back to her days as an art student in the 1950s.

“The teapot, when you start to take a ceramics class, is the first thing that they ask you to make. It embodies, it encapsulates, all the problems that you have of making something that works, that’s functional, and you can make it a work of art,” Silver said.

Examples of her work, spanning several decades, fill the corners of her home: plates, vases, abstract sculptures, and chunky painted ceramic necklaces. Some have bright splashes of paint that resemble work by Matisse; others have Picasso-like abstract figures painted on them.

50-color-plateHer home also contains some of her reliquary boxes: tall rectangular boxes each topped with a pyramidal lid. Some have been used as cremation urns. Her pieces often blur the line between classical and modern, and between functional and decorative.

“The striking part of her work was the way she integrated modern and contemporary painting into her vessels,” said gallerist Frank Lloyd. He exhibited Silver’s ceramics at his former gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station.

Hundreds more of her pieces are in private collections and in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and other museums.

Art historian and curator Jo Lauria, who wrote an essay in the catalog for this year’s Scripps ceramics show, said in a phone interview that Silver’s work stands out for its “very ambitious reinvention of Greek classical forms, but with an inimitable color pattern. … No surface of hers is less than bold and really dramatic.”

“I was also very impressed by her scale, which is hard to achieve in any media, especially ceramics,” she added. “Making something big doesn’t necessarily make it better. But when you go big, you have to justify occupying that much physical and visual space. And she does that.”

Silver’s large, colorful ceramic vases are featured prominently in Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff’s restaurants, including Spago, Granita and Chinois. Silver recalls the day the couple walked into a Venice gallery and picked out several of her vases to purchase.

“I closed the door and I said to my husband, ‘I’ll bet we’ll never hear from them,’ ” Silver said. “The next morning they came with a big truck and they bought them all.”

Silver has made menorahs, and her work has been displayed in Jewish museums, but she doesn’t see a direct connection between her Jewish faith and her art.

Silver’s parents were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto before World War II. Their last name was Davis, an adaptation of Davidovich. They weren’t observant, but did occasionally attend Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform synagogue and the oldest Jewish congregation in Toronto. Her family moved to Los Angeles shortly after the war and joined Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“My father came here one winter to see a relative, and he saw the oranges and he just said, ‘That’s it,’ packed up, we got in a big old Packard and came here,” she said.

In the years that followed, she studied at UC Berkeley, UCLA and the Otis College of Design in Los Angeles. For a time, she studied in Paris with the world-renowned Cubist artist Fernand Léger.

Silver’s first marriage was to businessman Marvin Kalin, co-owner of the celebrity-beloved Santa Palm Car Wash. They had three children (Lisa, Matthew and David) within five years. She had some artistic success, but her focus at that time was on her family.

“I didn’t push myself in any way. I didn’t. I was really just more interested in raising my kids. But I always worked at my art and I always went to school,” Silver said.

After her marriage to Kalin ended, she married Alfred Silver, a doctor and psychoanalyst, in 1975 and turned her art focus to working with clay.

50-bwplateToday she works in a converted back house that sits behind red brick stairs that cut through a flower garden bursting with life from recent rains. The studio is sunlit and bright. Inside are three electric kilns, racks of plaster molds, drawers filled with tiny bottles of glazes, and vases and plates in various stages of completion. There are bookcases bulging with art books from every conceivable era and geographic region, and artwork collected from trips around the world. There are also stacks of compact disks, mostly world music and classical, which she listens to as she works.

Silver is in her 80s, an age that belies her bright red hair, boundless energy and impressive productivity. She takes walks and exercises, but her secret to health, she says, is to keep working.

“I do everything. I think I’m 40, but I’m not,” Silver said. “I really do believe that you can be old if you put your mindset to it. I’m not old. Most of my friends are young, and there’s really no difference between us.”

Anna Silver’s work is on display at “Scripps 73rd Ceramic Annual: A Sense of Place” at Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College in Claremont until April 9. Gallery hours: noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit rcwg.scrippscollege.edu or call (909) 607-4690.

Light and movement: LACMA presents full range of Moholy-Nagy’s art

“Photogram” (1925-26) by László Moholy-Nagy

Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy is considered one of the most versatile and inventive artists of the 20th century. Prolific in photography, film, painting, sculpture and graphic design, he sought to merge art with the latest technological advances of his time.

A retrospective of Moholy-Nagy’s work, the first in the United States in nearly half a century, opens Feb. 12 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” was curated in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, where it already has been presented. The exhibition, including more than 250 pieces representing some dozen media, reveals the many facets of an avant-garde artist with little name recognition outside academic circles.

“He thought about art as a very holistic project,” said Carol Eliel, curator of modern art at LACMA. “And he believed in the value of art. He believed in harnessing the strengths of technology to help serve mankind through art.”

Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) pursued his art like a scientist or engineer, adopting new forms and materials to achieve his desired outcome. Some of his abstract sculptures incorporate Plexiglas to gain a greater level of reflectiveness and light. He made photograms by placing objects on photosensitive paper to create shadowy, ghost-like figures. And he incorporated new types of metals into his sculptures.

“The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines,” Moholy-Nagy wrote in a 1922 article. “To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.”

Moholy-Nagy was born Jewish but later converted to Calvinism. He attended an art school in Budapest after serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was heavily influenced by the art movements of the time, such as Dadaism and Russian Constructivism.

He taught at the Bauhaus, an influential German school of art and design, at its Weimar and Dessau campuses. After the Nazis closed the school, he moved to Amsterdam, London and then Chicago in 1937 to start the New Bauhaus school, which later became the Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Vertical Black, Red, Blue” (1945)

“Vertical Black, Red, Blue” (1945)

He had a profound impact on the Bauhaus, inspiring a generation of German and American students to pursue a modernist approach to art. After he settled in the U.S., he adopted English as his main language, writing letters to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (a native German speaker) in English.

“There was this incredible sense of being in the present, and a sense of optimism that whatever got thrown at you, you could deal with it and prevail,” Eliel said. “There is this sense of hope and optimism in this work that is incredibly engaging.”

The physical experience of seeing Moholy-Nagy’s works is critical, whether it’s the flickering light of his black-and-white films, the reflective light on the mounted glass-coated works, or the shifting shadows created by his sculptures. It’s also worth observing the intricacy of his drawings and paintings. His second wife, Sibyl, remembered him as “like a gem cutter, adding with infinite patience facet after facet to his intuitive vision.”

While his choice of media varied wildly, there are several themes or motifs that reveal themselves in Moholy-Nagy’s entire body of work, such as light, movement, transparency and the use of new materials.

For example, “Nickel Sculpture With Spiral” (1921), made early in his career, used nickel-plated metal, “which was an industrial fabrication method, not a traditional art-making medium,” Eliel said. “And then it incorporates this spiral with its sense of movement and has a very reflective surface so that light plays off the surface, so that as you walk around the spiral, you see the light adding to this sense of movement.”

Moholy-Nagy also made traditional oil paintings with a sense of transparency by applying colors to the canvas in a way that appears as if he’s layered colors. For example, the oil painting “A 19” (1927) features rectangles and a circle that overlap and intersect, but his use of paint creates a sense of light shining through transparent layers.

Toward the end of his life, Moholy-Nagy was fascinated by Plexiglas, a new material being used for airplane windshields and other industrial applications. He started making sculptures out of the material by heating, bending and shaping it. At times, he made mobiles out of it, or 3-D paintings with incisions that created shadows, incorporating light and transparency into his work.

“19” (1921)

“19” (1921)

The exhibition is organized chronologically rather than by medium. Moholy-Nagy worked in various media simultaneously, although there are episodic bursts of one medium or another. Eliel chose to place film projections onto the walls next to photographs, paintings and posters displaying his graphic designs.

Moholy-Nagy also was a teacher and a writer, and he organized and curated exhibitions that traveled the world. One senses, overall, a profound sense of curiosity in his work, and a belief in humanity and what can be achieved through art.

“I think he wanted to really have the notion of visual literacy, in as broad as possible of terms, become an integral part of people’s lives, and he felt that this would improve people’s lives in many different ways,” Eliel said.

Also on display at LACMA is a large-scale installation, the “Room of the Present,” a re-creation of an exhibition space Moholy-Nagy originally conceived in 1930 but never realized during his lifetime. It includes photos, film productions and industrial objects that showcase Moholy-Nagy’s embrace of  technology.

Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia in 1946, at the age of 51, leaving behind a rich legacy that influenced minimalist sculptors, abstract expressionist painters and graphic designers of the 1950s and ’60s. Seeing his wide variety of work in one place offers a sense of just how inventive and engaging his art was. One can’t help but think of how excited he would be by contemporary technologies — virtual reality, smartphone apps, 3-D printers — to reach new possibilities in art.

“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present” will be on display at LACMA from Feb. 12 through June 18. For more information, visit lacma.org.

From Iran to Israel, the art of Elham Rokni

Standing inside Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice, a visitor watched the silhouettes of trees flash by on a screen. It was dark, and the shadows were barely discernible. It took a while for the visitor to realize that the images were filmed from a car driving at night. 

This hypnotizing video piece, “Clavileño,” was part of a recent solo exhibition by the Israeli artist Elham Rokni. The title comes from the wooden horse Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, imagined could fly. Like the famous literary tale in which those characters appear, Rokni’s piece asked the viewer to suspend disbelief and take an imaginary journey through space and time.

Rokni continues her stay in Los Angeles as the 2016 Soraya Sarah Nazarian Middle Eastern Artist in Residence, a two-month residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Her current project involves African refugees in Israel reflecting on their dislocation.

“The project I’m working on is collecting oral folktales from them. So it actually deals with their memory from the place they came from,” she said. “It’s political because being a refugee and an immigrant is a political thing. But I’m interested in the memory regarding this displacement.” 

Rokni was born in Tehran in 1980. She left Iran with her parents at the age of 9, and that refugee experience has shaped much of her creative output.

“It’s not Persian culture or heritage that I deal with,” Rokni said, but rather “immigration and dislocation and our memories about it.”

She also has work from her series “The Wedding” on view at the center through March 12. “The Wedding” is centered around a video of her parents’ wedding in 1978, the year before the Iranian revolution that gave power to a religious fundamentalist regime. Her parents and relatives struggle to remember the exact date of the wedding. She asks her father to look for the ketubah, and even once he finds it, her mother tells her the actual ceremony took place a week or so after the contract was signed. 

Elham Rokni solo show at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice.  Photo by Michael Underwood 

The uncertainty about the wedding date seems to mirror the confusion of the historic turmoil about to sweep Iran. The film combines amateur video of her parents’ wedding with protest scenes from the 2012 film “Argo,” in which a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in Tehran. Rokni narrates over the images, describing the confusion around the wedding date, which remains unresolved.

Also on display at the 18th Street Arts Center is a series of drawings of guests from her parents’ wedding. The figures lack outlines, making them appear to melt into the white space around them. Their outfits are colorful and richly patterned, and they stand in groups facing the camera, or in this case, the viewer of the drawings.

The piece “Four Frames #1” features four images of a couple dancing, with the pictures beginning quite dark and becoming lighter. The drawings are based on a moment in her parents’ wedding video in which the camera flares, and like “Clavileño,” searches for a story within the interplay of light and movement.

Rokni received her BFA and MFA from Bezalel Academy in Israel, where she now teaches video art. Her work has been screened in international film festivals and she has received grants from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Yehushua Rabinovich Tel Aviv Foundation for the Arts, and the Fund for Video Art and Experimental Cinema in Israel. 

Her work is also being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Crossing the Dune,” a video showing a man trying to ride his bicycle across sand dunes, is included in the exhibition “Islamic Art Now, Part 2” and will be in the permanent collection at LACMA. It’s part of a body of work created in 2010 that re-creates things she actually saw people doing, which includes “Clavileño.”

“I re-enacted driving in total darkness. Sometimes I used to do it, driving in the desert on some straight road and just turn the lights off,” she said. “It was a period of time that I was noticing situations where human beings just do something against logic or against the laws of nature, just because of their belief that they will succeed doing it.”

Included in that series is a video of a car going down a road with an unsecured mattress on top. Halfway through, the mattress flies off the roof, the car stops, two passengers rush out, put the mattress back on the car, and drive on.

Rokni, based in Tel Aviv, has not returned to Iran since she was 9. She said she would like to visit her childhood home and school, but she is not allowed back in the country because she is an Israeli citizen.

“If I were allowed to go back to Iran, it actually wouldn’t be that interesting to me. Because it’s something that I can’t, I’m so eager to see that. It’s like a forbidden territory for me,” she said. “I think all immigrants who can’t go to their motherland because of political issues have this wish to go back, because we just can’t. It becomes more of a desire and a longing.”

Elham Rokni has work on display in the


LACMA and the Jews: How they built a ‘Temple on the Tar Pits’

With a frequent line around the block of people waiting to get in, the Broad Museum and its Jewish benefactors, billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, have recently captured the public’s imagination. Yet more than 100 years ago, some now almost-forgotten Jewish arts patrons were among the first to be involved with the genesis of a downtown institution that would one day become the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Before LACMA opened in 1965, its growing art collection was part of a Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art that opened in Exposition Park in 1913, and even before that museum’s first exhibition, Jews were involved.

In a just-released book, “LACMA So Far: Portrait of a Museum in the Making” (Huntington Library, 2015), author Suzanne Muchnic shows that in the catalog of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Jewish architect Alfred F. Rosenheim (1859-1943) is named a member of the museum’s art committee.

Rosenheim, born in St. Louis, moved to Los Angeles in 1903, where he designed several landmark buildings that are still standing, including the Hellman Building (354 S. Spring St.), the domed Second Church of Christ, Scientist (948 W. Adams Blvd., now the Art of Living Center), and the Hamburger Department Store Building (801 S. Broadway, later the May Co.), which made news recently because it’s currently getting an extensive mixed-use makeover, another major investment in a newly revitalized downtown.

As president of the Fine Arts League, an organization promoting the creation of a new museum, Rosenheim “was not just somebody who dipped in for a moment,” said Muchnic, formerly the lead art writer for the Los Angeles Times, a position she held for 31 years. The multi-purpose museum’s original site was located not far from an already westward-moving Jewish population — an early iteration of Sinai Temple had opened on 12th Street and Valencia in 1909 (the building now serves as Craig Taubman’s Pico Union Project). And its home, Exposition Park, had hosted several Jewish events, including a “Mandate Day” celebration attended by 10,000 in 1920; a “Zionist Ball,” held in the park’s Armory Hall (today an annex of the California Science Center) in April 1921; as well as a “Purim Ball” in March 1921, also in Armory Hall, organized by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Organization.

Jewish association with the new museum extended into other galleries of interest as well. In order for the new encyclopedic museum to grow, there was a “big effort to have quite a variety of cultures and people and geography,” Muchnic said, and presenting art of Jewish interest was part of that effort.

According to an item published in the May 20, 1922 edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger, “an interesting Jewish exhibit” covering “the arts and crafts of the Bezalel Institute of Palestine,” as well as “a fine display of sacramental objects loaned by the B’nai B’rith Temple and the Sisterhood of that Temple,” was opening at the Museum of History, Science and Art.

In November 1922, there was also an exhibition of the work of Jewish artist Peter Krasnow (1887-1979). After noting that Krasnow “has come to Los Angeles with the intention of making his home here,” which he did, building a studio near Glendale on land he purchased from photographer Edward Weston, the Messenger noted that Krasnow was “one Jewish artist who can paint Jewish life in its literal as well as in its symbolic form.” Later, after earning a national reputation as a pioneering Modernist, Krasnow would incorporate aspects of Judaism into relief sculptures he made for Sinai Temple’s Kohn Chapel in the congregation’s current home on Wilshire Boulevard.

By the 1940s, a Jewish woman was working at LACMA as a curator. Ebria Feinblatt, (1913-1990), a UCLA graduate school fellow, joined the museum’s staff in 1946 as an assistant to its director-consultant, William R. Valentiner. In 1947, Feinblatt was hired as the museum’s founding curator for prints and drawings, and the difficulty of the task to which she was appointed is worth describing. According to a LACMA publication titled “In honor of Ebria Feinblatt, curator of prints and drawings 1947-1985,” at the time of her hiring, the “new department had no endowment, no acquisition funds, and no large general collection.” Feinblatt also had additional duties in the paintings, ancient and decorative arts, so could not devote her full efforts to the print collection. For almost 20 years, she worked without an assistant curator, intern or secretary, yet she was able to amass, by LACMA’s own estimation, a “remarkable collection.” 

Ebria Feinblatt, longtime curator of prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The archive at LACMA shows that later in life, Feinblatt, a private collector of art in her own right, donated several works to the museum, as well as to the Skirball Cultural Center’s museum. (At the time of the gift, it was called the Skirball Museum and was located on the Hebrew Union College campus.) It also bears noting that, as a Jewish curator at LACMA, Feinblatt would be followed by others, perhaps most notably Stephanie Barron, a four-decade veteran curator at the museum who is currently senior curator and department head for Modern art; Barron’s acclaimed exhibitions on German art around and during the Nazi era have been groundbreaking and of particular interest to the Jewish community, including the current exhibition, “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933,” closing Jan. 18. 

The genesis of the current LACMA was sparked in the 1950s, when, seeking more space for the Exposition Park museum’s growing art collection, a serious effort was begun to create a stand-alone art museum at a new site. Los Angeles County donated an empty parcel adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits for the new institution, which, depending on your cultural perspective, was either in Hancock Park or at the southern end of the Fairfax District — another area of burgeoning Jewish population. Besides being located next door to the May Co. store (a company founded by David May, who was Jewish; the store is now being renovated to become the future home for the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures), and not far from several shuls and Jewish-owned small businesses, the future LACMA site was also only a few blocks north of the Westside Jewish Community Center, which had moved to its 5870 W. Olympic Blvd. location in 1954.

Although fundraising efforts for the new museum remained in the hands of the “old-money, conservative elite,” Muchnic wrote, business tycoon Norton Simon was also breaking in at the time, becoming “the first Jewish person on the [museum’s] board of governors,” Muchnic said.

Simon (1907-1993) was born in Portland, Ore., to Myer and Lillian Glickman Simon, descendants of European-Jewish immigrants. He got his start working for his father’s store, said Muchnic, who is also the author of “Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture” (1998, University of California Press). That store, called Simon’s The Store of Bargains, was just the beginning for the industrialist, who, after making millions from enterprises such as Hunt Foods, made his name investing in art.

In 1958, Simon “pledged $1 million to launch a campaign for a new museum,” Muchnic wrote. However, concerned that the new museum would “be a monument to one man [Howard Ahmanson had pledged $2 million] instead of a public cooperative venture,” Simon withdrew all but $100,000 of his pledge.

Another major Jewish contributor to the new art museum was financier Bart Lytton (1912-1969). According to Muchnic’s LACMA history, Lytton pledged $500,000 to the museum project, and one of the three original buildings initially was named for him. But, with trouble in his businesses, “he wasn’t able to make good on his promise,” Muchnic said, and because of differences with the museum over direction, as well, the building was instead renamed for another major Jewish donor, Armand Hammer.

An examination of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual report from 1965-67 shows that others Jews pledged and donated a large portion of the $12 million raised. In addition to gifts of $250,000 each from Simon (a sculpture plaza was named for him) and Lytton, the $100,000 to $250,000 category lists the Mark Taper Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore E. Cummings, later a close adviser to President Ronald Reagan and ambassador to Austria. In the category of donors from $50,000 to $100,000 were financier Edward Hellman Heller and movie producer Sol Lesser (some “Tarzan” films that starred Johnny Weissmuller) and his wife. Giving from $25,000 to $50,000 were the May Department Stores and Mr. and Mrs. Tom May; Dr. and Mrs. Jules Stein; as well as Norton Simon’s sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick R. Weisman.

Simon, Lytton and Weisman would go on to invest in eponymous museums, most notably the Norton Simon Museum (formerly the Pasadena Art Museum); and the Lytton Center of the Visual Arts, active from 1961-1969 in Lytton Savings and Loan on Sunset Boulevard. (The Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation has a site in West L.A. displaying works from the collection that can be visited by appointment only.) But despite Lytton’s issues with LACMA, hanging on the second floor of LACMA’s Hammer Building, just inside the doors at the top of the escalator, a plaque bears this inscription: “In Memory of Bart and Beth Lytton for their Pioneering Spirit and Generous Support for this Museum.” And, according to Muchnic, at one time, another plaque dedicated to Simon and his concept for the new museum hung in the lobby of the Ahmanson building.

When LACMA opened to fireworks in 1965, however, Time magazine probably did not have the Jewish neighborhood and donors in mind when it referred to the new museum, fittingly, as the “Temple on the Tar Pits.”

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmonjace@gmail.com. 

How the Talmud helped shape Frank Gehry

From his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Frank Gehry is an architect people think they know — until he surprises them again. Among his newest reveals have been Paris’ innovative Fondation Louis Vuitton art museum and, closer to home, a new Facebook headquarters building in Menlo Park, Calif., which includes a large, open work space and a nine-acre rooftop garden. 

A career retrospective of Gehry’s work opens Sept. 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), offering close looks at the creative process behind these and other highlights from the Canadian-born, 86-year-old architect’s lengthy career. Exhibited last fall in somewhat different form at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which organized the show in association with LACMA, the exhibition chronicles Gehry’s work from the early 1960s to the present, including more than 60 models and more than 200 drawings, many of them made public for the first time.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design sketch of riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain, c. 1991 © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP. Image courtesy of Gehry Partners.

The architect’s process starts in the huge Playa Vista-based Gehry Partners office complex, a cavernous former industrial space where architects, designers and others work on projects in development and taking shape all over the globe. Inhabiting the large studio these days are drawings and models for such current projects as high-rises in Toronto, a concert hall in Berlin, an arts complex in Arles, France, the renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a possible new home for Gehry and his wife, Berta, designed by their son Sam Gehry.

I recently visited Gehry Partners to chat with Gehry about the exhibition and its subject.  

Barbara Isenberg: LACMA’s career retrospective and your receiving the third annual J. Paul Getty Medal both happen this month. How do you feel about being so celebrated in your adopted hometown? 

Frank Gehry: I had a very good reception with Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was pretty exciting, and we’ve done a few other things people here seem to like. 

BI: Gehry Partners has designed 11 of LACMA’s exhibition installations, including six you personally have done with LACMA Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron. Yet, when it came to designing LACMA’s presentation of your work, which Barron also curated, you stepped aside, and David Nam, a partner in your firm, oversaw it instead. Why?

FG: I did not design this one because I can’t go backwards. It’s nice to have a show, believe me. I’m flattered. I love it. I’ll go to events and be happy and proud. But I didn’t spend a lot of time with the show here or in Paris. My head won’t let me spend time looking backwards.

BI: The exhibition does include several of your early Los Angeles projects. You set up your first architecture office here in the early ’60s and have, essentially, been based here ever since. What impact has that had on your work?  

FG: When I opened my office in Los Angeles, the American architectural world was focused in New York and not paying much attention to what we were doing out here. We were under the radar, which allows you a lot more freedom. I valued that, and I think it’s still true. Most people here aren’t getting attention, and there’s not much focus on the L.A. architectural scene. So, we can function without a spotlight on our work.

BI: You, however, seem to always wind up in the spotlight. For instance, you’ve been in the news a great deal in recent weeks about your pro bono involvement in what L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti calls a “master plan” for the Los Angeles River. How did that happen? 

FG: I was selected because they were looking for somebody who has experience with changing the city, as I did in Bilbao, and doing things at that scale. The L.A. River is, first and foremost, a project for water reclamation, and the amount of water lost that goes through the river into the ocean is enormous. If you reclaim it and can later use it, it reduces the amount of water we need to take from the San Joaquin Valley. It’s a big deal, economically important and politically feasible. This study, which is formatting the basic problem, would lead to a better understanding of how to do that. It will enable other people to work on designing parks and such. It’s not precluding anybody. 

BI: We’ve talked in the past about how your interest in such diverse projects reflects the curiosity you’ve had since you were a boy growing up as Frank Goldberg in Toronto. You’ve traced that inquisitiveness back to the many hours you spent with your grandfather, a talmudic scholar, in his home and hardware store there. 

FG: It seems to me that the Talmud spurs curiosity. That’s what “why?” does: Why is this? Why is that? The Passover seder is also about why: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It’s built into the Jewish culture. I’m an atheist, but I believe in the culture. I grew up with it. So it was natural that I question everything. 

BI: How is that reflected in your work as an architect? 

FG: I’m never willing to settle. I make a model, look at it, find some value in it and save that value. Then I move on to the next model. It’s an iterative process, and ultimately I come to a conclusion. But all the questioning and constant trying to up the ante result in the best expression for the client.

The Talmud also talks about people and relationships — about how we should talk to each other, how we should live together, why it has to be this way or that way — and I think I follow that tradition in my work. Now some people, when I do that, don’t understand what I’m doing. Even though I explain it to them in advance, they say, “I liked the last one better. Why did you change it?” It’s hard to get people into it. I think that’s the biggest problem I have: being understood for that process. The general culture of architecture is that the architect makes a thing and gives it to you, and you have to say, “Oh, my God, you’re a genius,” and you’re intimidated to live with it without questioning. I don’t feel that way about working with people. 

BI: How do you keep inspiration going when there are so many frustrations and disappointments? Disney Hall took 15 years to build and open after your selection as its architect in 1988, and your long-controversial design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was finally approved in July, also seemed like it would be in limbo forever. 

FG: The process is fairly normal. There are ups and downs, like everything in life. I just focus on the end game. Sometimes there are rocky roads. Sometimes it goes easily.

BI: Does it get easier as you age, or more difficult? 

FG: As you get older, you’re confident that you’re going to get it done. When you start out, you really never know whether you’ll realize projects. I’ve always been careful about who I work for and the projects I take on. I usually have a pretty good relationship with the clients that I work with. We’re all in it together. 

BI: Is the most exciting thing you’re doing always what you’re doing now? 

FG: I think that’s true, but what I’m doing now maybe lasts three or four hours, and then I go to the next “now,” because there’s more than one project here. 

BI: Does success come with a down side?

FG: That’s something I’ve observed as a negative when you’re younger. But architects usually peak when they’re older, and by that time, you are emotionally more solid and realistic about what’s going on.

BI: What sorts of discussions are you having at Gehry Partners about your legacy? 

FG: We’re very concerned, obviously. I’m 86, and I’m still working. The office is running pretty much like a Swiss watch. It’s very well organized, and we’re trying to figure out what happens next. Who takes over? Who does what? We’re working with lawyers to set up a proper succession. 

BI: What do you want to be remembered for?

FG: I don’t think much about being remembered. Occasionally I do — you can’t help it. But I’m not focused on that as a goal. I’m more focused on the immediate.  

The Frank Gehry exhibition at LACMA runs from Sept. 13-March 20, 2016. For ticket information, visit lacma.org. On Jan. 10, 2016, American Jewish University presents “Inside LACMA’s Frank Gehry Exhibition,” the first in a series of “Art Matters” Conversations With Barbara Isenberg.

Barbara Isenberg is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller “Conversations With Frank Gehry” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) and, most recently, of “Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical” (St. Martin’s Press, 2014).

Renee Firestone: From Auschwitz to LACMA

Former fashion designer Renee Firestone will never forget how devastated she was when she walked into her Washington Boulevard shop one morning in 1961, just three days before her first fashion show in Los Angeles.

The night before, she recalled, “We had just finished the line. I remember we brought drinks … and everybody was rejoicing.”

But when Firestone and her husband, Bernard, arrived at their shop that morning, there was glass all over the floor — the entire autumn collection had been stolen.

“Our hearts stopped,” Firestone said. “We thought: This is it. We’re finished. We don’t have the money for more fabric.”

After pleading with her fabric man, he agreed to give her the sample cuts, “so at least I’d have something,” she said.

Her husband hurried downtown to pick up the samples. At one point, while stopped behind a bus, he saw a woman get off the bus wearing one of the stolen outfits.

“Bernard followed the woman to a private residence. … And there, inside the house, hung the fashion line,” Firestone said. 

Her husband called the police, and the entire line was returned to Firestone in time for the show. 

“I’m telling you — some of the things that happened to me, I don’t believe myself,” she said.


Firestone’s life has indeed included a number of remarkable episodes. Along with her brother, Frank, she survived the death camps of the Holocaust (her mother and sister were killed at Auschwitz, and her father succumbed to disease at the end of the war). 

After the war, Firestone came to the United States and built a successful career in fashion design that spanned three decades, only to suddenly turn her design company into a contracting and consulting business in the early ’80s so she could devote herself to speaking publicly about the Holocaust, locally and around the world. She was one of five Holocaust survivors to appear in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, “The Last Days.” Despite having consisted of just a few years of her life, Firestone’s Holocaust story became the dominant narrative of her later years, eclipsing her renown in the fashion industry.

Until recently.

In 2012, her work was featured in “California’s Designing Women 1896-1986,” a Museum of California Design exhibition at the Autry Center. And, earlier this year, a number of her textiles were donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Last month, seven of her garments were accepted into the museum’s permanent collection of costumes and textiles.

The donors to LACMA are Damon Lawrence, the son of Firestone’s best friend, Rita Lawrence (who died in 1999), and his wife, Marian; they also commissioned an oral history of Firestone’s life, which they’re donating to UCLA. In addition to preserving her work, “We wanted to have a record that would provide contextual understanding to accompany our donation to LACMA,” Lawrence said.

WATCH: Renee Firestone is interviewed and shows some ensembles from her new clothing line on a local Los Angeles television program, “Fashion for Living” in 1961.